The Boneyard

As an author, Bigham has published a number of works, including Images of America: Evansville; We Ask Only for a Fair Trial: A History of the Black Community in Evansville; Towns and Villages of the Lower Ohio; and Reflections on a Heritage: The German Americans in Southwestern Indiana. He co-wrote Images of America: New Harmony, Indiana, and his On Jordan's Banks: The Aftermath of Emancipation on the Lower Ohio River is forthcoming from University Press of Kentucky. His recent scholarly activities also include serving as chair of the Indiana Council for History Education, as president of the Indiana Association of Historians, as president of the Vanderburgh County Historical Society Board of Directors, as Vanderburgh County historian, and on the Organization of American Historians Newsletter Editorial Board. Bigham joined the USI faculty in 1970, and his areas of interest include community/regional history of the Midwest, American history since 1815 with emphasis on social and intellectual history, and African American history. He holds a BA from Messiah College, was a Rockefeller Fellow at Harvard Divinity School, and earned a PhD at University of Kansas. The Indiana Historical Society, a nonprofit organization, has worked since 1830 to collect, preserve, interpret, and share stories of the state's history. Darrel Bigham retired from teaching in 2007.
We Ask Only a Fair Trial   

by Dr. Darrel Bigham

The Evansville Boneyard - February, 2008

On May 24, 1899, the Order of the Chosen Friends held its twentieth anniversary celebration-a ”colored cake walk” –which featured “Jubilee singing (and) wing and buck dancing by the best talent.” Staged by the city’s black elite for the entertainment of whites at Evans Hall, the event encapsulated the perceived ideal relationship between the races. Whites expected blacks to behave stereotypically, exhibiting childlike and sensual tendencies, and in return blacks assumed that they would receive respect from the white community.

Coping with second-class status was an extraordinary task, and that challenge extended to the political arena, where in theory blacks and whites had equal chances to secure benefits for themselves. In reality, political opportunity was conditional, and the black vote was treated as an object of manipulation. White leaders selected black leaders and presumed that blacks would not use their political power to attack the inferior status to which they had been assigned.

As elsewhere, Evansville blacks were a virtual appendage of the Republican Party. The leadership of the black community, which comprised teachers and ministers, many of whom were ex-slaves and/or Union army veterans, viewed the Republican Party as the source of emancipation, civil equality, and the suffrage. Not surprisingly, the lines between religion and politics were blurred. The Emancipation Day observance of 1868, like every other one for decades to come, included speeches by black teachers and preachers, each of whom stressed the dependence of Afro-American progress upon loyalty to the Grand Old Party. The most prominent figure of the immediate postwar period was teacher-clergyman James M. Townsend, Oberlin alumnus and veteran of the 54th Massachusetts. The founders of the colored Grant and Wilson Club, the first black political organization (1872), were lay leaders and clergymen of the black churches. The mixture of politics and religion was also evident on August 15, 1870, when black Senator Hiram Revels of Mississippi lectured at the Opera House to a large and apparently racially mixed audience. Proceeds from the affair benefitted the AME church. “The colored people evidently felt proud of their Senator,” noted the Evansville Journal, “and indeed he seems to be fully up to the average of Congressmen.”

The most articulate (and persistent) spokesman for this position was Robert Nicholas, a Union army veteran. In the “tenth annual address to the emancipated race and to the American public” in 1875, Nicholas observed that emancipation had “imposed upon us a debt, which it will take generations yet to come to pay. It has been often repeated that we are incapable of comprehending the responsibilities upon us as citizens.” He added, “Be this true or not, we ask only a fair trial, and we are willing to abide the consequences, and we will in a few years demonstrate to the world that we are intelligent as well as free.” Nicholas noted with pride that he was the first black policemen in Evansville, “if not in the whole state.” Expressing his gratitude to the City Council for the confidence it had shown in him, he stated-like so many “first blacks” after him-that he hoped he would “not be a “stumbling block” to those who come after me…(as) any incompetency or neglect of duty on my part would be speedily furnished to the authorities.” Recalling that the use of black soldiers had also brought expressions of doubt and ridicule, he asserted that his appointment demonstrated “that you have only struck the channel of other true men and hurled to the breeze those principles which we will be delighted to honor.”

The duties of the black community, he concluded, were:

“to educate our children and ourselves in all the useful branches, and to strain every nerve, and leave nothing undone which shall tend to fit us for the duties and responsibilities of the undeveloped future. Cultivate and raise the standard of morals among our people, and educate, because just as the precepts of faith…raise our souls above the interest of this world, so will the pursuit of education inspire us with a love of the beautiful and the just and a hatred of what is wrong, and will teach us these beautiful truths first proclaimed by the Savior of mankind.”

Excerpted from We Ask Only a Fair Trial
Indiana University Press

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